Crime in Southern Illinois
by Rich Davis
The Birger gang outside Shady Rest, Ill., in a
picture that became a popular postcard.
Charlie Birger is seated in the center, atop the car.
Old jail museum
||Benton, Ill.--Chicago had Al Capone, and Pike County,
Ky., had its McCoys, as in the feuding Hatfields and McCoys.
But for a real McCoy of an experience involving feuds and a bootlegging bad guy--so smooth he charmed neighbors, school kids, even pie-baking housewives--you need only drive to this town of 7,000 about 70 miles west of Evansville.
This is where gangster Charlie Birger
smiled at the crowd on the town square and said, "It's a
beautiful world," before being hanged, about 10 a.m. on April 19,
| Birger became the
benevolent "protector" in Harrisburg, tossing coins to kids
and making sure his Saline County neighbors had coal or food. But
across the line in Williamson County--where behind the barbecue-stand
front at his Shady Rest cabin he offered bootleg liquor, gambling and a
safe haven for rum-runners--he was a sinister mobster.
The legend of Birger and his gang lives on
at Historic Jail Museum here. But this is no quaint-by-number
Americana. Inside the old jail, used from 1905 to 1990, you can
see Birger's cell, with its phonograph and a long wicker basket like the
one his body lay in after the hanging. Nearby is the window where
he supposedly told men erecting his gallows to "build it strong,
boys." A replica of the gallows stands there today, next to a
|| You can watch a short documentary
or enjoy the banner newspaper headlines that shout "Charlie Birger
Dies Smiling." Photos show a dapper man who tipped his hat on
his way to court every day, who had the best lawyers and a wife and
young daughters at his side in the courtroom.
They say Birger created a persona, and during his trial even hired a company to produce postcards of his men posing with their guns.
| Benton insurance agent Robert
Rea--who has promoted the museum since 1994 by portraying Birger at
parades and other events and gained attention from USA Today when he
spent a night in Birger's cell--says Birger was given morphine before he
walked to the gallows. He says that explains Birger shaking the
hangman's hand and smiling at Sheriff Jim Pritchard, who had arrested
However, Ruth Ann Owens, who works in the museum that doubles as a tourism office, says Pritchard's daughter claimed Birger refused the offer of morphine.
"It was all a show," Owen says, noting Birger cultivated his own legend.
Rea partly agrees: "Charlie was a megalomaniac. He knew in 70 or 80 years he'd be a legend.
Owens enjoys watching people come through the two-story museum, especially the little boys who can't wait to see the gallows. Seventy years later, Birger in some strange way is still a folk hero, almost a tommy-gun-toting Robin Hood.
She tells the story of how Birger talked authorities into letting him bring his machine gun with him to jail when he was arrested in February 1927.
People still talk about how a rival gang dropped a dynamite bomb from a plane on Shady Rest, the rustic roadhouse that no longer exists along old Route 13 between Harrisburg and Marion. That effort was a dud, but people like to say it was the first aerial bombing in this country.
Birger idolized silent-picture cowboy Tom Mix and thought he resembled him--and he did.
"He was 48 when he died, but he looked much younger," says Owen.
DeNeal (Gary)--who spent years researching Birger and his gang and how they fit into a violent era of Southern Illinois history that included mine wars and the Ku Klux Klan--is the author of "A Knight of Another Sort: Prohibition Days and Charlie Birger." A revised second edition has just been released by Southern Illinois University Press.
| In revealing the man behind the
myth, DeNeal recreates an era of armored cars, machine guns and homemade
bombs--highlighting a violent decade that also spawned a deadly KKK war
of the "wets" and "drys" and bloody coal-mine
skirmishes that pitted union supporters against strikebreakers or
scabs. He tells how Birger's gang joined forces with another gang,
the Sheltons, to fight the Klan.
After local Klan leader S. Glenn Young was killed in a shootout (to which Birger was never directly linked), the gangs expanded their operations and took full control of the area. But Birger and the Sheltons had a falling out that accelerated into a feud that led to numerous slayings, including that of Mayor Joe Adams of West city and a state trooper and his wife. Birger eventually was charged with the mayor's killing, after his allies began turning state's evidence to save their own necks.
Rea, 47, says Birger came along
at a time in Southern Illinois history when immigrants working in the
coal mines needed protection against a Klan that not only hated blacks
but foreigners and Catholics. Even the U. S. marshal in Saline
County was a Klansman.
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